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State investigation finds equity director made inappropriate comments, unreasonable requests

Dr. Karen Johnson was the first director of the state Office of Equity from March 2021 until earlier this month.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — An investigation by the Washington State Office of Financial Management has shed more light on what Gov. Jay Inslee called "problems" with the first director of the Office of Equity's tenure.

Dr. Karen Johnson was terminated by the state earlier this month as the director of the state's Office of Equity (OOE), a position she had held since March 2021.

The investigation, which KING 5 obtained through a public records request, concluded that Johnson micromanaged staff, was disorganized and lacked adequate structure and processes, made unreasonable requests of staff, made inappropriate or insensitive comments to some staff members and publicly criticized some staff members regarding issues unrelated to protected classes.

Investigators also found "credible examples" of Johnson making inappropriate comments about the personal appearances of staff and their bodies, as well as "comments about a staff person’s ethnicity, race, and/or veteran status."

Seven of 11 current and former members of Johnson's staff raised concerns regarding her workplace conduct.

According to the investigation, the OOE had an overall attrition rate of 29% since it was created in March 2021. Five employees resigned between 2022 and 2023, and all of them cited Johnson's "chaotic, overburdened, and disrespectful workplace culture."

Among the concerns detailed in the report were employees were expected to respond to communication from Johnson within 10 minutes of her contacting them, even on weekends, holidays and evenings.

Examples of gender bias included telling two individuals to wear makeup, telling a white individual she couldn't wear her hair in a braid because it was cultural appropriation, and commenting on an individual's weight, asking "You want to be married and have a family, don’t you? If so, you have to take care of you.”

Johnson also allegedly said during a group discussion: “This may take some time for me because I generally distrust Mexican people. Mexican people have the option of being white when it is convenient for them.”

She said she denies being biased towards any of her employees. When asked about the incident regarding alleged comments about Mexicans, Johnson denied having any bias towards people from Mexico.

"That was not my takeaway from the conversation," said Johnson.

Johnson said she is contemplating suing the state over her termination.

"I believe everyone belongs because everyone is human," Johnson told KING 5.

Inslee said Wednesday that the investigation was not the reason Johnson was fired. He cited staffing and budgetary reasons for the dismissal but added, “We appreciate her working getting the agency started."

“There were some problems in this agency. It needed new leadership,” Inslee said Wednesday.

A spokesperson said Johnson was offered to resign or face termination, and she chose termination.

“No Black person in their right mind…wants to be leading this kind of work, convincing white people they want to do something they have no intention of doing,” Johnson previously told KING 5.

But looking back she called her tenure as director as “the time of her life.”

“I received many emails from staff across the state who said, ‘Thanks to you Dr. J., I know who I am. I found my voice and I’m using it," Johnson said. "That’s what I’m most proud of.'”

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